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Nana Grey-Johnson: The Magic Calabash

Grey-Johnson’s best-known work is an amusing novel about a difficult period in Gambia, when the economy was in tatters and unemployment rife. The International Monetary Fund is putting pressure on the government and there is talk of a confederation with Senegal. Erubami lives in Banjul with Modupeh (they are not married). She is pregnant and he has just lost his job as a government messenger in the Lands Bureau, as part of a policy of retrenchment. He is very bitter at his boss for letting him go and worried about how to find a job and money. He and his friends, including his cousin Quashie, who has a good job with an insurance company, spend much of their time railing against corruption in the government. Quashie is involved in local politics and there is a by-election coming up for a local council post. Quashie is supporting the opposition candidate and much of the book follows the election campaign. Soon after the start of the novel, Erubami’s Grandma Lucy has her box of valuables stolen and Erubami is the first suspect as he needs the money and was in her house when the box was stolen. Tracking down the thieves and the subsequent trial also feature strongly in the novel. Things get worse. Erubami and Modupeh have a fight and Erubami hits her. He goes to a bar, where he hears of the legend of the gnome whose hat brings great fortune to whoever can steal it.

Erubami sets out to find the gnome and eventually tracks one down, hiding in a poor area. Erubami tries to steal his hat but the gnome puts up a lot of resistance. They wrestle for an hour but, eventually Erubami realises that head-butting and kicking the gnome are the secret to success and it works. He goes off with the gnome’s hat. Soon there are stories of Erubami making generous contributions to the political campaign. The police are suspicious, wondering if he did, in fact, steal Grandma Lucy’s box of valuables. Quashie and Modupeh also wonder where he is getting the money from. Modupeh knows he has a secret cupboard he keeps locked and she manages to get the key and opens it. She searches in the cupboard and finds only the hat. However, when she picks it up, a lot of money falls out but, at the same time, she gets a terrible pain in her belly. She puts it back in the cupboard.

Meanwhile, things start going wrong. Quashie is demoted from the Planning Department to the Advertising department, fires break out in the market and Modupeh becomes ill. Quashie finds out about the hat and persuades Erubami to return it. He is reluctant but, eventually, he agrees. However, when they find the gnomes, Erubami changes his mind and rushes off. He is stopped by a policeman but, in the ensuing struggle, he kills the policeman. Fortunately, Grey-Johnson has a twist in the story for us. It is an amusing tale and is made more interesting by giving us, as background, the political and economic situation in Gambia at the time as well as lots of local colour.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Vinasha Publishing